Apologetics in the 21st Century - Part IV
In support of this goal, I have asked my good friend Dr. John H. Armstrong to share his helpful series “The Postmodern Context and Apologetics,” which underscores the necessity of a new approach to Christian apologetics in the twenty-first century.
Are We Ready to Be Apologists in a Brave New World?
By John H. Armstrong, Senior Fellow
We cannot ignore what is going on around us in the culture. All our lives are caught up in the massive religious and social changes that are coming at us at a speed that no one could have imagined only a few decades ago. We tend to feel as if life is changing so fast that we cannot grasp it all. "The good ole days" no longer exist and the future seems uncertain at best.
Many are fearful and more than a little confused. Some retreat into escapist eschatologies and lifestyles that are geared to preserving their own families while everyone else goes to hell.
Christianity seems to be at a major crossroads, at least in the West, where the church is experiencing a major decline. The church no longer has a prominent role in the culture. More importantly it seems to have no grip on most of the people in the pew either. (A recent poll showed that only 9% of those in the pew had a Christian "worldview.") We are, if the truth be known, confused by almost everything that is remotely related to Christian faith and practice in the modern world.
First Speaker: "Here's the answer. This is the way it is."
Second Speaker: "I doubt it."
Welcome to the confusion brought on by the postmodern turn in culture.
Christians are responding to this postmodern turn in many different ways. Ordinary people are much more distrustful of those who teach and write about these changes than ever before, even suggesting that people who talk about these changes (like me) are themselves being shaped by postmodernity. And those who promote the postmodernism, often found among the intelligentsia, sound as if this is the next great development in human civilization that the rest of us ought to wake up to and embrace.
Others, especially among conservative Christians, believe this has to be the worst thing that has happened in human history, thus we had better resist all of this to the death or the faith may well disappear from Western society. Still others, like me, believe postmodernism presents us with a new cultural opportunity that can be selectively and widely exploited by Christians and churches to more effectively present the gospel in new ways that are actually ancient while at the same time they may seem quite postmodern (S. Michael Craven offers an excellent account of the postmodern opportunity in his book Uncompromised Faith).
The word postmodernism is often thrown around in ways that no one understands. Few are neutral about the word itself or the concepts behind it. If, as the two speakers noted above suggest, postmodernism is doubt with regard to truth claims then it is not new at all. Stackhouse correctly notes that in this sense postmodernism is "merely the latest version of skepticism" (Humble Apologetics, 22). And skepticism is about as ancient as the Greeks philosophers. Even medieval philosophers debated whether or not our view of things correlated with the actual reality of those things.
This is the very context that produced one of Christianity's greatest theologians and apologists, Thomas Aquinas. But in the late twentieth century Stackhouse rightly concludes that the "implications of this philosophical question have been carried by a wave of large-scale social change. The result is a cultural situation enough different from what has gone before to warrant a new term, namely, postmodernity" (Humble Apologetics, 23). In some ways it is this "wide-scale social change" that has most impacted the church. I suggest that this is why we must learn how to do apologetics and evangelism all over again.
The Contrast: The Premodern and the Modern
Premodern civilization sought for truth just as we do. But it generally discovered truth by looking backward, back to the established traditions and practices of the past. Modernity altered this way of thinking and living by pointing us to the future. Moderns may appreciate the past but modern thought looks ahead with confidence believing that something far better can be found and used in the future. New information will almost always surpass the old, given time and human effort. More next week...
© 2009 by John H. Armstrong
John H. Armstrong is the founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for the Advancement of the Christian Tradition in the third millennium. He is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eight books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and web-based articles. Besides his writing ministry Dr. Armstrong is an adjunct professor of evangelism and apologetics at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker throughout the United States and abroad.